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Racial Housing Covenants in the Twin Cities

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Fair housing protesters from the “Committee to End Discrimination against Fourth Class Whites," December 19, 1962, St. Paul Pioneer Press. Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Members of the “Committee to End Discrimination against Fourth Class Whites" protesting fair housing in St. Paul on December 19, 1962, St. Paul Pioneer Press. Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Minneapolis real estate developers began writing racial covenants—race-based property ownership restrictions—into property deeds in 1910. They were banned by the Minnesota state legislature in 1953, but their use in the early twentieth century laid the foundation for contemporary racial disparities in Minnesota.

Racial covenants were legal clauses attached to property deeds. Parcels with these restrictions were reserved for the exclusive use of white people.

"Real covenants" were used before racial covenants became popular. They have been used to dictate everything from building heights to the location of vegetable gardens in residential developments. But in the late nineteenth century, real estate developers found a new application for this type of restriction embedded into property deeds. They invented covenants that wrote race onto the land.

Racial covenants were buoyed by a rising tide of white supremacy, which converged with a new determination to make cities more livable. They were offered as an answer to racial violence, with the explanation that neighborhoods needed to be racially segregated to foreclose conflict. Their use was driven by the conviction that the value of land was determined by the race of the people who lived on it. Covenants gave real estate investors the promise of security.

Over the next fifty years, racial covenants were inserted into millions of property deeds across the nation. These discriminatory deeds built a hidden system of American apartheid. Segregated bathrooms and "colored only" water fountains were public markers of white supremacy. By contrast, racial covenants were out of view in the deed books of county recorders. But these powerful restrictions re-worked the relationship between race and land tenure in Minnesota and other places imagined to be free from Jim Crow restrictions.

"Racial covenants" spread from California, where they were first cited in a lawsuit in 1892, through the rest of the country in the early years of the twentieth century. They were introduced to Minneapolis in 1910, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold a property to Nels Anderson. The deed for that transaction stipulated that "premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”

Scott became the first president of the Seven Oaks Corporation, a real estate development company that inserted this same language into thousands of deeds across Minneapolis and St. Paul. By the 1930s, most new residential developments in the Twin Cities were covered by these kinds of racial restrictions.

Racial covenants were inspired by changing ideas about race and urban space. Like many cities in the north, Minneapolis was not especially segregated in 1900. But the city's racial climate shifted quickly. By 1908 white residents were raising new alarms about race mixing. Denizens of the area around Fifth Avenue South organized to remove what they called "undesirable residents," explaining that "a negro is an undesirable resident of a white neighborhood." And white people in Prospect Park were horrified when the Jackson family—which was African American—built a new home on Franklin Avenue. The next year, when another black family joined the Jacksons on the block, residents erupted. A mob of 125 white men gathered on the Jacksons' lawn to threaten the families. Across town, neighbors in Linden Hills banded together to prevent an African American minister from buying a house.

The next year, the editorial board of the Minneapolis Journal called for coordinated action to make neighborhoods all white. The newspaper condemned mixed-race neighborhoods as "dangerous" and called on the city's real estate board to contain what it called the city's "considerable negro colony." Only 1 percent of the city's population was identified as African American. But in 1910, business and political leaders saw this small number of non-white residents as a threat to civic harmony and progressive development.

The Seven Oaks corporation recorded its first racial covenant that same year. It was just one of the real estate development companies that had begun experimenting with these new tools for shaping the urban landscape. Covenants had the enthusiastic support of the professionalizing real estate industry, which formed the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) in 1908. This group popularized the idea that residential segregation kept the peace and protected investment. By 1924, the NAREB had adopted a "code of ethics" that enjoined its members from "introducing into a neighborhood. . .members of any race or nationality. . .whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values." In 1927, it issued a standard restrictive covenant for members to use in communities across the country.

Though many covenants named a laundry list of "objectionable" people, in Hennepin County, covenants were crafted mainly to exclude African Americans. But Jews were also a target. For instance, a 1919 advertisement in the Minneapolis Tribune appealed to anti-Semitic sentiments. Developer Edmund G. Walton offered "restricted" housing sites overlooking Lake of the Isles that could not "be conveyed mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, Semetic [sic] or African blood or descent."

But later that same year, the Minnesota legislature banned real estate restrictions based on religious faith or creed. This might explain why less than one percent of the covenants identified by the Mapping Prejudice Project (as of 2019) contain anti-Semitic restrictions like the one advertised by Walton. Thanks to the 1919 state law, the city's palpable anti-Semitism was only rarely articulated in racially restrictive deeds.

Covenants were difficult to challenge, especially after the US Supreme Court upheld these private restrictive agreements in Corrigan v. Buckley in 1926. They ran with the land, which meant that they could be enforced decades after they were put into place. Anyone who breached a covenant risked ending up in court. They could be sued and held financially liable—a powerful deterrent.

Most fearless in its campaign against racial covenants was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which brought a series of court challenges that ended up at the United States Supreme Court. In Shelley V. Kraemer (1948), that body declared covenants to be unenforceable. Though widely hailed as a triumph for civil rights, that decision ultimately did little to dissolve the barriers created by covenants.

In Minnesota, elected officials recognized that more action was necessary. The legislature banned new covenants in 1953. Then, in 1962, state lawmakers prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin. The federal government followed suit in 1968, when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

By the time that covenants were made illegal, the damage was already done. Covenants made it difficult for African Americans to secure stable and affordable housing, which affected the health, educational opportunities and job prospects of generations of residents. And covenants created patterns of residential segregation that persist today. They also determined who could buy property. In tandem with redlining—a banking practice that made it impossible to get loans for properties in racially mixed neighborhoods—racially restrictive deeds shut African Americans out of property ownership.

The legacies of these practices are clear today. In 2019, the Twin Cities have the lowest African American homeownership rate in the country. And since most families amass wealth through property ownership, this homeownership gap feeds the contemporary racial wealth gap. The wealth gap undergirds a whole host of other racial disparities, which are particularly acute in Minnesota.

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Advertisement placed by Edmund G. Walton in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, January 12, 1919.

Buchta, Jim. "Already-low Homeownership Rates of Twin Cities Minorities Fall Further." Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 19, 2017.

"End of Both Race Wars Believed Near at Hand." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 7, 1910.

“A Fair Housing Law.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune. April 15, 1961.

Gonda, Jeffrey D. Unjust Deeds: The Restrictive Covenant Cases and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

“Harriet Negro Trouble Is Taken to the Police.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 29, 1909.

“Harriet Residents to Investigate Sale." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 31, 1909.

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

"Jim Crow of the North." Minnesota Experience, episode 20. Twin Cities PBS documentary aired February 25, 2019.

Jones-Correa, Michael. “The Origins and Diffusion of Racial Restrictive Covenants.” Political Science Quarterly 115, no. 4 (2000 Winter):541–568.

Legislation banning covenants in Minnesota, Pub. L. No. HF210, § 507.18 (1953).

Long, Herman H, and Charles Spurgeon Johnson. People vs. Property; Race Restrictive Covenants in Housing. Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1947.

Mapping Prejudice Project.
www.mappingprejudice.org

Metropolitan Council. "Disparities Unmasked: The Twin Cities Metro in 2014." September 2015.

National Association of Real Estate Boards. Code of Ethics. [Washington, DC]: N.p., 1924.

"The Negro in Minneapolis.” Minneapolis Journal, January 10, 1910.

"Negro Minister is Under Exclusion Ban." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 28, 1909.

Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1995.

"Race War at Harriet Involves More Blacks." Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, January 2, 1910.

"Race War Started in Prospect Park." Minneapolis Tribune, October 22, 1909.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law : A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Scott, Henry, and Leonora Scott to Nels Anderson. Transaction on May 26, 1910, Hennepin County Deeds Book 759, page 538, Document 712111, recorded April 23, 1914.

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Vose, Clement E. Caucasians Only: The Supreme Court, the NAACP, and the Restrictive Covenant Cases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

"White Folks Plan a Negro Quarter." Minneapolis Journal, May 20, 1908.

Related Images

Fair housing protesters from the “Committee to End Discrimination against Fourth Class Whites," December 19, 1962, St. Paul Pioneer Press. Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Fair housing protesters from the “Committee to End Discrimination against Fourth Class Whites," December 19, 1962, St. Paul Pioneer Press. Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Advertisement placed by Edmund G. Walton in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 12, 1919. A restriction banning Jewish tenants and tenants of color is highlighted.
Advertisement placed by Edmund G. Walton in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 12, 1919. A restriction banning Jewish tenants and tenants of color is highlighted.
Image of first known deed with a covenant in the Twin Cities, May 26, 1910. The passage containing the covenant is highlighted. Deeds Book 759, page 538, Document 712111, recorded April 23, 1914. Registrar of Titles, Hennepin County Recorder’s Office, Minneapolis.
Image of first known deed with a covenant in the Twin Cities, May 26, 1910. The passage containing the covenant is highlighted. Deeds Book 759, page 538, Document 712111, recorded April 23, 1914. Registrar of Titles, Hennepin County Recorder’s Office, Minneapolis.
The exterior of the Edmund G. Walton Real Estate Agency at 314 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, ca. 1916.
The exterior of the Edmund G. Walton Real Estate Agency at 314 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, ca. 1916.

Turning Point

In 1910 the first racial covenant is inserted into a Minneapolis property deed.

Chronology

1910

The first racial covenant is recorded in Minneapolis.

1919

The Minnesota State Legislature bans real estate discrimination based on religion.

1924

The National Association of Real Estate Boards adopts a "code of ethics" that bars its members from "introducing into a neighborhood. . .members of any race or nationality. . .whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values."

1930s

Covenants are endorsed by federal agencies charged with supporting homeownership. Most real estate developers adopt these restrictions in the hopes of receiving favorable financing terms.

1940s

The NAACP launches a legal campaign against covenants.

1948

The United States Supreme Court rules in Shelley v. Kramer that covenants are unenforceable.

1953

The Minnesota Legislature bars new racial covenants.

1962

The Minnesota Legislature prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.

1968

Congress passes the Fair Housing Act, making covenants and other discriminatory housing practices illegal across the nation.